Matt Damon can do anything. He can solve the maths, he can fly like an angel, work the spy thing and the cop thing, and now he runs a zoo. Okay, so he needs a little help from a passel of zookeepers, but the end result is totally worth it. We Bought A Zoo is a trip I’d take anytime.
Based on We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever by Benjamin Mee, the film tells the story of a man who decides to chuck it all and start afresh after the death of his wife. Moving the action from the U.K. (the real zoo is Dartmoor Zoological Park in England) to SoCal here in the States, the story takes a few liberties with the real-life tale, but those changes make the story easier to follow as well as easier to tell in the limited span of a feature film. How do you manage to find yourself after the world has dumped all over you? With lions, tigers and bears. Oh, my!
Directed by Cameron Crowe, Zoo has the same wholesome feelgood vibe as his films Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire and Elizabethtown. Face it, Crowe knows how to take material that could be dark, over-the-top or maudlin in lesser hands and make it beautiful. Here, the death of Benjamin Mee’s beloved wife serves as a catalyst, but is never swept under the rug. Ben aches for her, the kids act out and cry, and it’s not wrapped up tidily as soon as you see your first monkey. There’s balance here; the movie gives you laughs and tears as the Mees all struggle to find how they fit in to a world without the woman they adored.
The crossroads of this movie is when an elderly tiger, Spar, starts to get sick. Really, really sick. How Ben and his staff come to terms with this development moves the film into more than just a cute animals flick, though if you see that tiger and don’t fall in love instantly? I don’t want to know you, ‘cause you’re dead inside. Another subplot deals with Ben’s son Dylan and the young girl that works at the zoo, Lily Miska (played by an almost ethereally beautiful Elle Fanning) who has a crush on him. That’s not the only bit of romance in the air, as Ben finds himself in constant contact with the head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson, looking and acting believable in full zookeeper attire).
Crowe brings the best out of all his actors, and I could almost feel the rapport between director and talent come off the screen. That’s a good thing, y’all. Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones, as Ben’s children Dylan and Rosie, have an Uncle Buck-like chemistry that feels real. Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) plays Ben’s brother Duncan, and he’s fun to watch, as always. My favorite character? Angus Macfadyen’s (Braveheart) boarderline psychotic zookeeper Peter MacCready, hands down. Macfadyen jumps into the role with both feet, and delivers a hilarious performance. Though USDA asshole Walter Ferris is made so lovingly detestable by John Michael Higgins (Best In Show) it was tough to choose. Crowe also doesn’t forget the folks he’s worked with in the past; that laid-back zookeeper with the monkey is Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit.
And mmmm, the soundtrack. Crowe is keeping his game up, this time tapping Jónsi Birgisson of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós as his main music maker. Jónsi’s soundtrack is a moody, beautiful piece of work that somehow grounds you and lifts you up at the same time. Then again I’m an unabashed Sigur Rós fan…but there are pieces from Cat Stevens, Tom Petty, Temple of the Dog and others, and they’re used to perfectly compliment the action.
Ben Stiller was considered for the lead at first, but I’m glad it didn’t go down like that. Damon gives this movie the touch of dramatic gravitas a film like this needs to prevent it from becoming, well, Zookeeper. *shudder* Not that Damon can’t do comedy, he’s totally down. (And if you haven’t seen him in Inside The Actors Studio with Ben Affleck, get thee to YouTube right now ‘cause that’s some of the funniest shit this side of everything.)
This movie has gotten quite a lot of booing & hissing from PETA and I can’t say that I’m altogether down on their message, though as always they’ve brought a gun to a knife fight. We Bought A Zoo is a warm, fuzzy movie. It’s got gorgeous scenery, beautiful animals and the acting and directing is so good that it takes you on a wonderful adventure. People that aren’t really running on all cylinders may leave the theater with the idea that running a zoo for fun and profit is easy-peasy. As someone who volunteered at The National Zoo in DC, I can tell you that real zookeepers work real hard. And you need a helluva lot of knowledge. And money. And time. And you’ve gotta love it, every single day. I respect the hell out of anyone who does that work for a living. But if you’re not one of those people and you love big cats (and you cannot lie)? Donate to a charity (maybe Cause An Uproar while you’re at it?), or to your local zoo (or aquarium). Then head over to the local multiP and see this movie.